Uzbekistan is the heart of the Silk Road. For thousands of years, this Central Asian country has been a melting pot of people, products, and ideas. The names of Samarkand and Bukhara evoke a romantic, fairytale image in our collective minds, even if we can’t place them on the map.
For Muslim travelers, Uzbekistan has a particular allure. Imam Bukhari — author of the Sahih al-Bukhari collection of hadiths — was born here; Bahauddin Naqshbandi, the founder of the Naqshbandi order, is buried just outside Bukhara; and the tomb of Kusam Ibn Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, is in the Shah-i Zinda necropolis in Samarkand. More than 90% of Uzbekistan’s modern population is Muslim, and the tiled mosques, madrassas, minarets, and mausoleums are the country’s architectural calling cards.
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1. Chashma Ayub, Bukhara
Legend has it that the Prophet Job (Ayub in Persian) performed a miracle on this site: he struck the desert sand with his staff, and fresh drinking water spurted forth. The natural spring at the Chashma Ayub still feeds a well, and the water is said to have healing properties. Pilgrims come to the site to pray, and the 13th century building above the spring now houses a small museum of water engineering.
2. Juma Masjid, Khiva
Khiva’s Friday Mosque is one of the key sites which has earned the historic walled city its UNESCO World Heritage Status. Each one of the 213 elm wood columns supporting the roof has been carved in a different design, and the oldest of them dates back to the 10th century. This is the most peaceful place to pray in the Ichan Qala, natural light flooding into space through two open roof lights.
3. Khast Imam Mosque, Tashkent
Most of what you see in Uzbekistan’s capital post dates the 1966 Tashkent Earthquake, but the Khast Imam Mosque is a notable exception. The mosque’s library houses the Uthman Qu’ran, said to have belonged to the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan. Radio carbon dating has been used to give a date as early as the 7th century, which would make it one of the oldest (if not the oldest) surviving Qu’ran in the world.
4. Mausoleum of Imam Bukhari, Hartang
The great theologian Imam Bukhari was born in Bukhara (as his name suggests) but is buried about 30 km outside Samarkand in the village of Hartang. Bukhari is said to have collected some 600,000 hadiths, of which he declared 7,400 to be flawless, and thus worthy of inclusion in the Sahih al-Bukhari. Bukhari’s magnificent memorial complex is arguably the most sacred pilgrimage site in Uzbekistan; local Muslims consider visiting the shrine as an essential part of a “Small Hajj”.
5. Mausoleum of Ismail Samani, Bukhara
The Samanid Mausoleum was built between 892 and 943 and is the first known example of a Muslim mausoleum: construction of a monument above a burial place was prohibited for orthodox Sunnis. The cuboid shape of the structure is said to have been inspired by the Ka’aba in Mecca, but it also features native Zoroastrian motifs. The design of the Mazar-e Quaid, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum in Pakistan, was inspired by this building.
6. Naqshbandi Memorial Complex, Bukhara
Bahauddin Naqshband Bukhari founded the Naqshbandi, one of the largest orders of Sufism. The memorial complex around his grave predominantly dates from the 16th century and has some exquisitely decorated buildings. Muslims from across Central Asia come here to pray and listen to religious teachings, though respectful tourists from all faiths are welcome to visit as well. This is one of the few sites in Uzbekistan where women are expected to cover their heads.
7. Nur Chashma, Nurata
The shrine at Nurata centers on a sacred spring, just below a fortress built by Alexander the Great. Fish swim in the pool, and the water also feeds a bathhouse. Pilgrims come to bathe as well as to pray, as the spring water is believed to heal all manner of illnesses. Newly married couples visit the shrine for a blessing, and also to have their wedding photos taken.
8. Tilla Kori Mosque, Samarkand
With dozens of elaborate mosques across the country, it is difficult to narrow down a selection for this list. But the Tilla Kori is more ornate than any other, its interior glittering with gold leaf. The Tilla Kori Madrassa in which it lies dates from the mid 17th century, and it is on the northern side of the Registan, Uzbekistan’s most iconic tourist attraction.
9. Tomb of Kusam Ibn Abbas, Samarkand
Prophet Muhammad declared that his cousin Kusam Ibn Abbas was more like him to look at than anyone else on Earth. He is credited with bringing Islam to Central Asia and is buried at the heart of what became the Shah-i Zinda, the Timurid royal necropolis. A local legend states that when Kusam Ibn Abbas was beheaded, he did not die but carried his head with him to Paradise. Shah-i Zinda means “the living king” and the name is derived from this story.
10. Tomb of Prophet Daniel, Samarkand
Uzbekistan’s Muslims believe that the Prophet Daniel — known locally as Daniyar — is buried in Samarkand. Christians, Jews, and Muslim pilgrims alike come to the site to pay their respects. Daniel’s sarcophagus is covered with velvet cloth embroidered with verses from the Qu’ran, and it is more than 18m in length: local people believe that Daniel’s body is still growing a little each year.